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Judge Declares He Will Set Forth Process To Allow Felons' Voting Rights

Vox EfX via Flickr

In 2018 Florida voters agreed that felons should have their right to vote back once they’ve completed their sentence. In 2019 the state created a law that tied repayment of legal financial obligations to that right. The law was challenged in court where plaintiffs have argued it created a poll tax. Closing arguments in the case were made Wednesday and the judge in the case appeared to agree with their plaintiffs.

The state has said in order to get their voting rights back, a felon must pay back their fines, fees, and restitution. In other related cases, courts have rejected that argument. During the recent trial, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle questioned the state’s intent for the law. Plaintiffs argue it was actually rooted in partisanship.

"It would be stunning if somebody told me that they didn’t realize that African Americans tend to vote Democrat more than Republican," Hinkle said."In fact, Dr. Barber stated that and I think he was plainly right. Here’s my question: what is there in the record to show any other purpose?”

Michael Barber is a political scientist at Brigham Young University who testified for the state.

The state’s answer: that bill sponsor, Rep. Jamie Grant (R-St. Petersberg) stated his intention was to follow the intent of Amendment 4. But Hinkle says nothing in the amendment requires financial obligations to be treated differently than they normally are.

"The sentencing judge takes [financial obligations] outside the criminal justice system, but Amendment 4 says treat it as part of the criminal justice system," Hinkel said. "That’s just not faithful stewardship. Maybe it’s a fair reading, maybe it’s not, but you can’t get that from Amendment 4.

Hinkle essentially said no matter what type of payment it was, any payment was a poll tax and thus unconstitutional and he said he’d rule in the plaintiffs’ favor in the trial.

“Now I’m going to enter an injunction. Isn’t the proper way to deal with this that I enter a specific injunction and say how to do it, I mean that’s sort of what I told you at the pre-trial," Hinkle said. "We don’t wait and say just figure out something to do. My plan is to enter an injunction that tells you what you have to do. Isn’t that the right way to deal with this?

In October, Hinkle tasked the state with creating a way felons could figure out how much they owed in legal financial obligations, as well as a way they could show they couldn’t afford to pay those fines and fees. The state has done neither. Hinkle says his ruling on the case will allow felons to vote regardless of paying fines and fees, which he’s deemed a poll tax. For now, the judge has gone into recess with the intent of making a ruling when he returns.

Copyright 2020 WFSU

Blaise Gainey is a Multimedia Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.